|In the hands of skilled artists and writers, tarot is able to take us into so many rich and varied worlds in a way that nothing else can. In Tarot of Northern Shadows, artist Sylvia Gainsford and writer Howard Rodway – whom many will know from their Tarot of the Old Path (1990) and perhaps from their Rune Vision Cards (2002) – again offer us inspirational artwork, supported by an excellent 134 page guidebook. This time, the journey they take us on is into the rich world of Norse, Viking and Celtic myths and legends, in particular the traditional pre-Christian Welsh tales of The Mabinogion.|
If you are unfamiliar with Sylvia Gainsford’s artwork, there are images from Tarot of the Old Path, and the Rune Vision Cards on this website. As in those two decks, all the cards in this deck have a white background. This has given the artist considerable flexibility in the shape of the finished artwork on the white background. Sometimes she fills the card, so that there is just a soft white border where the art work ends; at other times, as in The Fool card, for example, the outline of the figure appears without any scenic background on the white background. Similarly, the image of Frigg, as the pregnant Empress, appears with two totem animals frequently associated with her, and no other background: the heron with its wings outstretched is behind her; a tiger lies to her right, curled around her so that one of its back legs and the end of its upright tail appear immediately behind her, on her left.
Not surprisingly, in a deck linked with Norse mythology, many of the Major Arcana cards feature gods and goddesses, as well as runic symbols. So we find Freyja as The High Priestess, Frigg not only as The Empress but also as the goddess who has knowledge of the destiny of all in the Wheel of Fortune, Odin both as the father creator god in The Emperor but also in his sacrificial role – when he gained knowledge of the runes– as The Hanged Man, Thor appears as the charioteer in The Chariot, in the image shown on the front of the box, and Loki – often represented as a mischief-maker and trickster – appears as The Devil. Of the many beautiful cards in the Major Arcana, one that is particularly striking, both visually and in the mythological story that inspired it, is the image of The World, represented in this deck as Yggdrasil, the world tree.
The cards of the Minor Arcana are again rich and varied. Most echo the Waite-Coleman Smith cards in the meanings presented, even when this is not immediately obvious. So we see three shadowy, sword-wielding Viking warriors on horseback in the background of the 3 of Swords, and in the foreground a grieving couple cradling a dead baby; in the 4 of Swords, four shadowy figures wielding swords are again in the background while in the foreground we see a monk-like figure on his knees in prayer; and then in the 7 of Swords we see a changeling baby in a cradle surrounded by fairies with swords, and in the background two fairies flying away with the human baby: these images while illustrating events from ancient tales have nonetheless captured the essence of these cards’ traditional meanings.
Howard Rodway guides us through this richly varied terrain by providing all the relevant mythological and historical information needed as well as the cards’ meanings, and reverse meanings. There is also a section on Creating the Right Atmosphere for Readings, Card Spreads and Interpretations, three spreads (The Celtic Cross Spread, The Witches’ Circle Astrology Spread and Howard’s Six Card Spread), The Tarot as Art, Card Back Design, a Bibliography and biographical details for both Sylvia Gainsford and himself. Without a doubt, Tarot of Northern Shadows will provide you with truly fabulous new layers of meanings and associations for most if not all of the cards. Particularly if you love mythology, I’d strongly recommend this as one of those must-have decks!